The 20-year anniversary of Providence, Rhode Island noise rock institution Lightning Bolt arrived in 2015. Though their inception was as a trio with Hisham Bharoocha, his leaving the band in the late '90s to begin similarly minded freak unit Black Dice left behind the duo of bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale, both insanely powerful and unique players who formed a terrifying and magical whole much larger than the sum of its parts when coming together as Lightning Bolt. While the band only grew stronger through countless international shows and recordings, the thick layers of noise that emanated from home-crafted speaker cabinets and feedback-spewing contact mikes were replicated in the band's albums through their often lo-fi recording means. Even when they opted for a professional studio over low-tech home recording, the results often seemed thin, struggling to capture the intensity of the band's now legendary live shows. Sixth album Fantasy Empire is their first full-length of new material since 2009's Earthly Delights and also is their first effort put to tape with the full benefit of a highly functioning studio and long-labored production. Recorded at Rhode Island's Machines with Magnets studio, the nine tracks here are far and away the most high-definition recordings the duo has ever mustered, particularly bringing into focus Gibson's ever-demented and sometimes washed-out bass tones. Working with the limitations of their spare instrumentation, Lightning Bolt have slowly added texture over time by getting more into live looping and an ever-growing bevy of pedals adding dimension to Gibson's thundering bass tones. All of this comes into crystalline shape on Fantasy Empire. Chippendale's manic drumming is contrasted by his strange tape loops, as when the near ambient sound collage of "Leave the Lantern Lit" is abruptly shattered by the near-metal force of "Dream Genie." Getting to hear the band in a fuller spectrum of sound uncovers technical precision and nonstop intensity that were buried on previous efforts. While they stick closer to the traditionally heavy, sometimes ham-fisted hard rock compositions they began investigating almost a decade earlier on Hypermagic Mountain, the songs ring especially weird and unstoppable in their new clarity. Album closer "Snow White (& the 7 Dwarves Fans)" brings all of Fantasy Empire's best elements together, with manipulated vocal loops, dynamic riffing, and unhinged near-free drumming exploding in a metered, hypnotic assault that never loses power for any of its more than 11-minute running time.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas